Political Dysfunction in the Philippines Is Hurting Haiyan’s Victims

Patronage and strongman politics can shape the distribution of disaster aid.
November 15, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared in Washington Post on November 15, 2013.

Typhoon Haiyan’s destruction in the Philippines has led many to ask why a country that experiences some 20 such storms annually wasn’t better prepared and express frustration with the slowness of the response and resultant breakdown of law and order.

I’ve spent the better part of three years doing fieldwork in the Philippines — research that did not focus on disaster response, but does highlight a political story that can help explain the trouble responding to Haiyan. While the Philippines is certainly captive to its geography, it is also captive to some of its own political dysfunction. Like many developing economies, the Philippines struggles with a variety of factors that limit its ability to provide for its citizens: poverty, corruption, electoral irregularities, and state weakness. Behind many of these phenomena is an informal system of patronage, strongman politics (as discussed by John Sidel), and family ties (as measured in Pablo Querubin’s work on Philippine family dynasties) that underlie the country’s formal democracy and shape everyday politics. Haiyan highlights the degree to which these pathologies generate under‐​preparedness for disasters and confound relief efforts.

First, the system is prone to under‐​provision of public goods and services broadly, but may be particularly ill‐​suited to disaster preparedness. Disaster preparedness projects are susceptible to the same misappropriation as other public works. Philip Keefer and Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper note government incentives for disaster preparedness can be problematic in many countries, but are particularly so in countries struggling with poverty and corruption. Philip Keefer and Stuti Khemani point to problems like electoral irregularities (measured in the Philippine context by Cesi Cruz) that limit citizens’ access to information needed to hold officials accountable. Disaster policy is particularly susceptible to this.

Moreover, irregularities in public services and elections are well known to Philippine citizens — eroding public trust to such levels that residents may not obey exhortations to evacuate, or may not believe the government will protect their property from looters or squatters if they did (as noted in several reports from Haiyan‐​affected areas). Numerous studies on disaster response note the importance of trust in government for citizen participation in disaster preparedness and evacuation.

Second, these same pathologies can generate frustrating responses once disasters occur — both because of underinvestment in regular services and in response to domestic and international aid efforts. The transportation and communication infrastructure needed to coordinate and provide relief was inadequate both due to Haiyan’s destruction, but also to “skimming” and other forms of misappropriation that reduce construction quality. Indeed, Benjamin Olken measures corruption by the decrease in the quality of road construction.

Similarly, patronage and strongman politics can shape the distribution of disaster aid. Disaster response in the Philippines is often plagued by allegations that local authorities hoard aid supplies and distribute it only to political supporters or family members. As recently as last month, politicians in one of the islands hit by Haiyan were accused of refusing access to relief agencies responding to an earthquake — preferring to distribute the aid themselves, thus garnering credit with their constituencies. Aid distribution also has been accused of falling prey to profiteering middlemen. To be sure, conspiracy theories are an understandable refuge for frustrated populations whose predicament may be the result of many factors, but the persistence of such accusations in the Philippine context suggests they may contain an element of truth.

Many aid agencies are both logistically and institutionally required to work through local politicians. While many politicians may work faithfully to serve their constituents, in some cases aid providers find themselves choosing between supporting political pathologies they find unappealing and trying to help victims.

About the Author